So, who would you vote for today?
With Zuma's departure the answer to that question is not so easily answered - and opposition parties have a problem
If South Africa held a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?
That was the question I asked in a Twitter poll nine months ago. The options, limited to four by the poll’s format, were the ANC, the DA, the EFF and, somewhat stupidly, “Wouldn’t vote”.
In retrospect I should have gone with “None of the above” rather than “Wouldn’t vote”, but, in my defence, this was never going to be an authoritative taking of the nation’s temperature: I’m a spinner of yarns, not a cruncher of numbers.
Then there are the fantastic biases of Twitter itself. The vast majority of my followers are middle-class and urban. They follow me because (in general) they agree with or at least are entertained by my political views and class assumptions. I was, in other words, polling the inhabitants of one room inside an echo-chamber inside a silo.
Not surprisingly, the results of my poll reflected that homogeneous demographic. Of the 1,149 people who voted, 71% opted for the DA, 16% voted EFF, 10% said they wouldn’t vote and just 3% stood by the ANC.
So why mention this largely meaningless little poll? Well, I know that two wrongs can never make a right, but sometimes you can trace a line between two wrongs and identify the first hint of a trend. And so, on Monday, I posted the same poll again.
By Tuesday afternoon (when this piece was written), an almost identical number of people had voted: 1,125.But that’s where the similarity ended. Because this time around, the DA had plunged from 71% to 52%, while the ANC had rocketed from 3% to 23%. (The EFF, too, had had a setback, dropping from 16% to 10%.)
Again I should stress that no sensible person should read anything into these specific numbers. But the trend, I think, spoke to two ideas gaining traction: firstly, that the ANC no longer triggers an instant, visceral no from urban voters; and that the opposition’s salad days are over.
The DA and EFF are, of course, keenly aware that the hard work is about to start. Few opposition parties in history have been handed a greater asset than Jacob Zuma, and his resignation alone would have been enough to lose them thousands of votes. The fact that he has been replaced by a man saying all the right things might already have pushed that figure into the hundreds of thousands.
To claw back that lost ground, the DA and EFF will have to polish and present the most compelling versions of themselves. This will be harder for the DA than the EFF. The official opposition’s ability to govern is being questioned in strongholds like Cape Town, and its fundamental role – being a handbrake – will never be as sexy as the EFF’s revolutionary rhetoric.The EFF, however, also has problems. Nobody benefited more from Zuma than the Fighters and, without a devil to make them look like avenging angels, they are in danger of becoming tediously mortal.
Last week it seemed that they had already started to lose their shine, apparently misreading the national mood and making the kindergarten mistake of being mean about the popular kid.
I suspect, however, that this was less an error than an acknowledgement that the EFF is running out of time and has to go for broke. The moment Cyril Ramaphosa makes even the slightest concrete move to address the land issue, the EFF deflates into little more than a disconsolate chorus demanding that things go more quickly.
The problems faced by the opposition are not part of a political soap opera. Most of us are ready to give Cyril Ramaphosa the time to prove benign intent, but we also need a vocal and strong opposition. There are things I find deeply worrying about both the DA and the EFF, but I want them in parliament, calling bullshit and dragging the state over the coals – or into court – whenever it crosses the line.
So which party would I vote for if there were elections tomorrow? I won’t tell you, but I will tell you this: that question is suddenly getting harder to answer. And that’s great news for all of us.